Portraits of Autism #3

There's no one here today. I'm sitting in the waiting room by myself. They've refurbished some of the teaching rooms, and there's a few school desks lying around - including the one I'm writing on now. I suppose everyone must have gone on vacation. At least away to the coast for a long weekend. I don't blame them, it's boiling here.

Anyway, I've promised to do portraits, to introduce you to a new child on the autism spectrum every week. As there's nobody here I'll write about someone I know, someone who's been coming here for as long as we have, a little girl who participates in group therapy with Max.

She's only a year or so younger than Max. But she's tiny. Her big sister who sometimes accompanies her is also very short. But they come with their dad, who's nothing short of a giant. I love seeing little E. rushing around her dad's legs, barely reaching to his hips, while he towers over her, calm and benign, and they're in perfect harmony with each other.

When E. arrives at the centre, on Saturday mornings, she runs in to the waiting room, arms akimbo, looking around confidently to see which of her friends have arrived yet.  Then she'll go to them and greet them, loud and clear. If they're already playing when she arrives she'll join in straight away, making her presence felt.

She's a funny looking little thing - she's got stiff black hair, bushy eyebrows, and a turned up nose. And she's so short. But you can tell that soon, she'll shoot up and be as tall as her dad. And because she's so confident already, you just know she'll make a very attractive woman one day. It's all there.
I don't think I've ever seen little E. looking sad, or upset, except if another kid is crying or having a tantrum. She talks a lot, so clearly, she's an aspie, a kid with asperger syndrome, a high functioning form of autism. So she's on the spectrum, with the rest of them, but her verbal abilities are very high. She's not shy, and right from the beginning would come up to me and ask me what was in my bag, or if she could borrow Max's colouring pens. She's vivacious, fun, a bit of a flirt. She likes to talk, she likes to play, she likes to run, she likes Max. She does very well in the group class and is often the first to get something right. When Max isn't sure what the answer is, he'll copy Elif.

So what's wrong with her, you ask? Why, nothing. She's a bright, adorable little girl on the spectrum. My guess is she's dealing with some sensory issues, that she may have the occasional meltdown. The two are related. When the noise and the smells and the light gets too much for an autie kid, they go into meltdown mode. Nothing you can do to stop it when it happens, but as they learn to deal with sensory overload better, it happens less often.

Another thing, as with most autistic people who are good with words, she may need some help learning to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate talk. She may have to be taught as she grows older, that some questions are just too personal and shouldn't be put to strangers. But she seems to be doing well on that front already.

Also, something that's usually a big stumbling block for people on the spectrum, she'll have trouble expressing her emotions. Not that there's anything wrong with her emotions. She has them allright, and she can tell when someone else is feeling upset, sad, angry, or shy. She can tell when someone else likes her and wants to play. What she may not be very good at is putting all this knowledge into words, and she may have difficulties with behaviour that requires her to be verbal and emotional at the same time.

So here, where all the other kids are on the spectrum, and she's the best talker around, her reactions are spot on. If a kid starts crying or acting upset, she'll go to him, full of empathy, letting him know with her eyes that she cares. But in a situation where everyone is talking, where the person who's upset is telling her over the phone exactly what's upsetting her and why, she may well get it wrong, say something inappropriate and hurt her friend's feelings. So yes, because we live in a world where people want to dissect their feelings and analyse their emotions over the phone, she needs help. That - other people's expectations - is what some people might say is wrong with her.

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JulieB said...

Thank you for this series Sandrine - for someone who has no real experience or knowledge of autism it is really interesting to read about the different manifestations. I knew of course that there is a varying severity. I may be making a gross generalisation, but from what you describe, this little girl would until only recently not have been diagnosed. It seems we have come quite a long way in our understanding, which must be very reassuring to someone with an autistic child.

liveotherwise said...

There's nothing 'wrong' with her, she's just a little different. Rather odd reading portraits of children unrelated to the blogger, particularly ones as detailed as this.

Sandrine said...

Thanks Julie! This is exactly why I write these portraits. And yes, I also suspect that this kid and others like her may have not been diagnosed if they'd been born ten or twenty years ago. That would certainly be one reason why there are so many more cases now than there used to be: more refined diagnostics.

Sandrine said...

Liveotherwise. You seem to be in complete agreement with me when I write that nothing is wrong with that little girl. Thank you for saying so.
I'm not entirely sure what to make of the rest of your comment. If it is just a matter of incomprehension, I can refer you to Julie's comment, just above yours, which sums up very nicely why I am writing about these children. You may also find that reading my first two 'portraits' helps clarifies the aims of the project.

Sandrine said...

liveotherwise - re-reading through my post I see that the last line did look as if I was saying there was something wrong with the little girl. I've now edited it to say more clearly what I wanted to say.

Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot said...

She sounds like an adorable person and I can relate to her: trouble expressing emotions, funny looking, asks inappropriate questions, can't handle sensory overload. It sounds a bit like me. I hope she will do well in life. It sounds as if these kids are getting a good education and are being loved and cherished. Thanks for sharing their stories with us. It's intersting. And I love the kid pic of the 3 sisters with the moustache:)

Jean said...

Really lovely description of a person with aspergers. She sounds gorgeous.
I find the photo of the kids with the circles covering their faces disturbing...it captures really forcefully how the identity of autistic people can be hidden.

Sandrine said...

Thanks for commenting Annabel!I think you're right - even though things are far from perfect here, and there just isn't enough help in school, what they are getting is really good, and for somebody like this little girl, there's every hope that she'll be just fine when she's an adult.

Hi Jean! Yes, she is gorgeous. So are a lot of the kids I meet at the centre. But she's so open and charming and caring! It really makes you wonder where the myth that autistic children don't have emotional responses came from...
As to the picture I'm not sure I 'get it', but like you, I feel it fits somehow. My sister took it as an illustration for my Autism Awareness Day post. The kid with the blue face is the autistic one, I think. (I also think the model is my niece but don't tell my BIL as she's not supposed to be on the blog!)

Anonymous said...

I agree with Julie B and will say, yet again, how much i love this series of posts. I adore the way you describe these children, i can visualise them. There's something very special about the way you are writing.


sister3 said...

dear jean (and sandrine)
actually you are right
this very simple picture means a lot
the plates (masks) are here to hide the chidren faces
are here to make a face blue, colour of autism
are here to say that behind a smiling face there can be fear, and sadness,
are here to say that we have to go behind the appearances, behind the 1st sight and impression
the children whith white plates are all together, and the blue one is a little apart, BUT not far, and one of the child holds his hand
for me it meant that you can be different, and be with people, even if your not exactly in the group
VOILA, I did my best to express what I tried to put in that picture

vegemitevix said...

Hi there, a lovely series that goes some way towards addressing public misconceptions about autistic spectrum children. My son was diagnosed as PDD NOS (AS?) at 3yrs old. At first it was an awful diagnosis, and the fear and hurt we all went through at that time was diabolical. One day I will blog about it. But what I can say is that as he grew his autistic spectrum 'flavour' diminished and now at 16 he is just a tad eccentric. He was diagnosed two weeks after as profoundly gifted. I subsequently did considerable research about autistic spectrum disorder and twice exceptional kids. One thing I did learn over the years is the spectrum is wide-reaching and covers a range of behaviours. In many ways the label is irrelevant, it's understanding how best the child learns that's paramount. If only I'd known when he was diagnosed that there was no nothing to fear! Vx

Sandrine said...

Marketingtomilk - Thanks! I think you can't spend time each week around these children, with nothing to do but look at them and not love them. This is probably what comes across in the way I write about them! Each one of them is adorable in his/her own.

Vix: thanks for the cheering and insightful comment! I think what you say about needing to figure out each person's learning style is spot on. And that probably applies across the human spectrum and not just the autistic one! Also I love that you say that restrospectively, there was nothing to fear. I can't wait till I get to that stage, and in the meantime, I'll bear what you say in mind.

@jencull (jen) said...

She sounds like a fabulous little girl, I can almost picture her myself now and you are obviously very very fond of her Sandrine, it came through in every word:)

I was interested to read VegVix comment about figuring out how each child needs to learn because someone said that to me the week my son was diagnosed and it was the most helpful tip I have had yet. It really does boil down to the fact that my son needs to learn differently, but he can still learn them. It helped me hugely at the time:)


Sandrine said...

Hi Jen! I also really liked what Vix said about learning styles. I'm only figuring it out now really. I used to think he'd simply learn more slowly, but watching him figure systems for adding for example is a revelation! He's trying to figure out how to learn too.

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